Commentary
7/23/2003
04:11 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary

The Explorer: Automatic Update Services -- Yea or Nay?

Taking a long, hard look at BigFix, Dell File Watch, and others.



There is a variety of sites and services -- some free, some not -- that purport to keep your PC's hardware and software completely up to date with all necessary new updates, patches, drivers, and bug-fixes.

Most of these services are conceptually similar to Microsoft's free "Windows Update" service for Windows 95/98/Me and Windows 2000. As you probably know, Windows Update combines a special Microsoft Web site and a downloadable applet that, together, sniff your OS and browser components to see what versions you're running. If a newer/better/bug-fixed version is available, the Update site offers you the download, along with other miscellaneous downloads you may optionally select. (You can run Windows Update manually by selecting "Windows Update" from the Start menu, or by running Wupdmgr.exe (usually found in the \Windows directory), or by clicking here.)

Windows Update also offers a separate but related "Critical Update Notification" service that can automate the process. If you choose to download and install this applet, it runs as a background task, and will automatically "phones home" periodically to see if there are new updates you need.

Windows Me is a little different in that it bundles a self-update capability right into the OS as a Control Panel item called "Automatic Updates." (But under the covers, it's essentially a repackaged version of the Critical Update Notification applet mentioned above.) Although it's installed as part of the OS, it is controllable: You can configure it to download and install updates automatically; to let you know when new updates are available but not to install them without your approval; or to do nothing at all.

Is Automatic Better?
Your mileage may vary, but I tend to dislike fully automated update services. Here's why:

  1. I don't want extra tasks bubbling in the background, sucking up resources and CPU cycles
  2. I dislike apps that "phone home" unattended because I prefer to control when, how, and about what my PC communicates with the outside world. (I don't believe Microsoft Update actively snoops on things it shouldn't; but why take a chance with any phone-home app, if you don't have to?)
  3. I want to ensure I've made a secure, fresh backup before any system files are changed or updated
  4. I like to know what's going on with my PC. If an automated update happens without your knowing it, and it fails for some reason, your system may become flaky and you'll have no idea why.

So, I usually trigger my updates manually. I'll visit the Windows Update site once a week or so, for example, and see what, if anything, it thinks I need to download. If I agree with the "Update Wizard's" assessment, I'll allow the download, and go from there. While I'm at the Microsoft site, I'll also visit the similar (semi-manual) update site for MS Office applications.

I also periodically visit the much more-comprehensive and newly-revised "Corporate Update Site." In the past, the Corporate site was just a static collection of Update files you could download and store locally on your hard disk so you wouldn't have to re-download again if you reinstalled your OS. (The site actually is aimed at corporate IT department staffs that prefer to download a patch once and then distribute it over a LAN to a large number of PCs. But the site also is a gold mine for advanced users, although very few know about it. Now, you do!) Microsoft recently has upgraded the site and it now includes not only all the Windows Update content, but also is a good selection of driver updates approved by the Windows Hardware Quality Lab.

With these resources, I can keep my OS and Office components, and some of my hardware drivers, fully up to date with minimal effort. But what about the rest of the hardware and software? The Microsoft site doesn't help much there.

BigFix
BigFix aims high: It's a free, very comprehensive third-party patch-and-tune-and-update service for Windows machines. Unlike Microsoft's Update site, BigFix "knows" about some of your non-Microsoft application software and can assist in keeping those apps up to date, too. It also watches for common problems in system tuning and security, and can provide automatic, one-click fixes for these problems. It's a very promising concept.

The hard working BigFix examines many things: For example, I just stopped writing for a minute and ran BigFix. It said it evaluated 525 items pertaining to my setup; an impressive number. But it then reported it detected "no issues" that were relevant; that is, it found nothing wrong, nothing out of date, no security holes and and nothing untuned. This is fairly typical of what BigFix does -- or rather doesn't do -- for me. In the months I've been using it, it's never told me about any patch, update, or tweak that I didn't already know about from some other source. And sometimes, BigFix tells me, incorrectly, that I need a patch that I know I've already applied, usually via Windows Update or direct download from a Microsoft site.

Of course, I may not be a "typical" user (whatever that is) -- but are you?

Although you can run BigFix as a stand-alone app (exiting when you're done), it's designed and intended to be running all the time, like Microsoft's "Critical Update Notification." Thus, it has the same potential drawbacks: As a background app, it will consume resources and CPU cycles; it will "phone home" on its own from time to time; it may entice you to try an update on its own schedule, rather than when you've backed everything up and are ready to go; and so on.

I've kept BigFix on my system for some time in the hopes that something either really good or really bad would happen to tip the balance and let me clearly call the shot one way or the other -- but it never did. For me BigFix runs fine, but doesn't do much.

So my take on BigFix is conditional: If you already keep your machine in good shape by performing updates, housekeeping, and maintenance tasks such as those we regularly discuss here, you're probably not likely to get much out of BigFix. I sure haven't.

But if you prefer not to think about maintenance activities and would rather have an automatic reminder of when it's time to download a patch or perform routine maintenance, then BigFix might be useful to you.

To take it for a spin, check it out at BigFix.com.

Dell File Watch
I really like this service from the top PC maker, and wish it were more generally available. As it is, if you have a Dell PC, you can sign up for File Watch on the Dell support site. It's a breeze: You enter your e-mail address and the "service tag" of your system which is written on the case and on the sales invoice.

Through the Service Tag, File Watch can look up the manufacturing records of your system, and so will know exactly what was in your system -- the type, version, and revision of motherboard, BIOS, drives, cards, OS, etc. -- when it was originally shipped from the factory. The service then watches for new drivers, BIOS updates and such that specifically pertain to your system. When a relevant file becomes available, it sends you an e-mail.

I just got the following for one of my systems here, for example. (Dell is only one of the brands I use, but is the only one that has this service.)

Dear Fred,

Greetings from Dell's File Watch service!

File Watch has located a newly published file in the Dell File Library that matches your current registration profile...

File Title: BIOS: Dell Dimension System BIOS, BIOS, English, Dimension XPS
Txxx, A11
File Date: 10/31/2000
Library: FlashBIOS Updates
File Size: 457576 bytes

You can view the details of this file from the Dell File Library at the following location
[http://support.dell.com/us/en/filelib/download/index.asp?fileid=R22940&sws=fw]

Remember, we've built a personal support site just for you with information for your specific systems and needs. Dell's industry-leading and award winning support site, Support.Dell.com, is available anytime for your technical support questions.
[http://support.dell.com/index.asp?sws=fw]

Thanks again for choosing Dell and have a great day.

Dell's File Watch Service

OK, it's terminally chipper and somewhat promotional in tone, but consider: That e-mail arrived, with no effort on my part, less than 24 hours after the new BIOS become available. The notification was totally automatic and totally noninvasive (File Watch runs on Dell's corporate computers, not on the user's system). I was told of the exact file that related to my specific model PC so I didn't have to wade through tables of downloads, or enter my motherboard serial number or BIOS revision number or any such thing. If I wanted the file, all I had to do was click the embedded link to go straight to the download page without having to wade through the rest of the support site.

The only downside is that the service works only for Dell systems, and can only tell you about files that relate to the system as it was when initially purchased; the Dell service can't and won't track any hardware or software you've added to your PC since then.

The Ideal Service?
There are other update services, too; and we can talk about them in the attached discussion area. But as far as I know, the ideal service doesn't yet exist.


Related resources:

Tune/Tweak Tools

Hot Fixes

Windows Workshop

Tune/Tweak Tips

Here's what I think that mythical ideal service would be:

It would be a combination of all three of the services I highlighted above: a single authoritative, reliable, and timely source for all OS, applications, and hardware (driver) updates; capable of alerting you by e-mail (so you need not run any monitoring tools); capable of working with any brand or model or version; capable of adapting as your system configuration changes over time; and -- like the services above -- it'd be free.

If you know of any such service, or of any services that come close, or if you've had experiences eithergood or bad with any update services, please join our discussion and let us know.

Maybe the ideal update service is out there. If not, maybe we can pool our knowledge and at least come close! Join in the Discussion!


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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